Skip to main content

Keeping kosher aboard a naval vessel—sounds about the same as keeping kosher in any military environment, doesn’t it? But when considering the Navy’s carefully scripted food menus, limited storage space and resupply opportunities, strict fire safety and food handling/health standard restrictions that go along with operating the Navy’s ships, complicated only begins to describe it. In fact, when Aleph’s Military Personnel Liaison, Rabbi Elie Estrin was talking to a Jewish sailor about the subject, he was told point blank: “It is impossible to keep kosher aboard a Navy ship.” Estrin was deeply bothered by this. “I thought to myself that there must be a way to allow Jews who serve aboard US Navy ships to keep to a kosher diet,” he says.

It’s one thing to state the intention; it’s another to make it happen. The process wasn’t going to be easy with the sheer amount of complex logistics the Navy is known for. For example, it is critical to minimize waste disposal so even something as simple as providing Jewish sailors with plasticware is not a sustainable option.

Estrin began the process of solving this conundrum in early 2019 with several brainstorming sessions held with the Navy’s senior Jewish chaplain, CDR Aaron Kleinman, along with a Jewish Navy Supply Corps Officer. A phone conference was held with upper level logistics individuals who said they’d look into the possibility of serving kosher. But the group kept encountering hurdles at every turn.

Despite extensive efforts, the group made no headway, until Rabbi Eli Eleff, Rabbinic Coordinator and Managing Director, Community Relations for OU Kosher, the world’s largest kosher supervisory agency, came on the scene. Rabbi Eleff had consulted with Aleph about questions regarding military chaplaincy. After a single conversation, Rabbi Estrin realized that he was the man with the food systems knowledge combined with the organizational heft for the job. Indeed, as soon as Rabbi Eleff heard the problem, he dove headfirst into solving it.

After several phone conferences, the group returned to one of their earliest conceptual ideas: to bring kosher food experts onto ships to assess the situation from an expert perspective. With Rabbi Eleff representing the OU and Chaplain Kleinman stationed at Norfolk Naval Station, the pieces were now in place to make that a reality. Working with other senior Navy officials at Atlantic Fleet Force Command, Kleinman obtained permission for Eleff and his colleague, Rabbi Daniel Sharratt, to tour three ships docked at Norfolk Naval Base: Aircraft Carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), Amphibious Assault Vessel USS Bataan (LHD-5), and Destroyer USS Cole (DDG-67). The tour was led by Chaplain Captain Brian Stamm, Atlantic Fleet Force Command Chaplain, and accompanied by both Kleinman and Estrin.

The professionalism of Rabbi Eleff and Rabbi Sharratt was incredible to observe, Estrin says. They impressed the sailors, supply personnel and leadership of the ships with their understanding of food systems, clarity, and sensitive investigative work, asking incisive questions and assessing the actual kosher possibilities from numerous angles. Their initial conclusions were extremely positive, as they note that 80% of dry and raw foods aboard ship are, in fact, certified or inherently kosher. The complications arise only when these foods are prepared in the kitchens, which are impossible to kasher. Despite that, Rabbi Eleff noted that there are ways to allow sailors to eat three full and nutritious meals daily aboard most Naval vessels, as long as there is ample communication and understanding regarding the basics of kosher.

To that end, Rabbi Eleff and Rabbi Sharratt prepared a report, which summarizes their conclusions and explains the basics in language simple yet broad enough for all Naval officers involved with supply and logistics to be able to understand. The plan is for an adaptation of the report to be disseminated among Naval supply officers, Navy chaplains and Jewish sailors everywhere.

A Supply Officer collaborating on the project noted that this will be an outstanding reference for not only the Jewish sailors, but the ship’s Supply department, which is responsible for preparing meals for the crew and requisitioning a wide range of material, including kosher MREs.

This initiative will go far to improve morale among Jewish sailors. For EM2 Daniel di Liscia, it is especially exciting. “This push for kosher on Navy ships is a great thing and I’m really happy to hear it is in the works,” he says. “When I deployed on the USS Roosevelt, kosher MREs didn’t make it on the ship.” There was very little he could eat for the next four months, but di Liscia wasn’t willing to sacrifice kosher. “I hope my fellow sailors will have an easier time with it. A system in place to obtain kosher food would not only transform our relationship with G-d but also our professional relationships,” he says. “I want to extend my thanks to Aleph Institute and the OU. Everything they’ve done is not just appreciated in the abstract, but has greatly improved my military experience in a practical sense. And I appreciate that the US Navy understands this need, and is willing to work to accommodate this basic element of Judaism.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, agrees wholeheartedly. “We appreciate the proactive approach of the US Navy in recognizing the importance of accommodating the kosher dietary requirements of Jewish servicemen and women. Their willingness to work towards implementing a system for obtaining kosher food is commendable.”

Originally published in the Three Weeks 5783 Jewish-American Warrior magazine.